We are never without garlic in our kitchen. As a back-up, we have homemade powdered garlic made from our own dried and crushed garlic cloves. But there is nothing like minced fresh garlic, browned and sweetened in a little olive oil, and added to stir-fries, curries, soups, salsas, or rubbed straight on buttered toast.
If there’s one crop you absolutely MUST grow in your garden (or in pots) it’s garlic.
1. It takes up so little space (you can produce 40-50 full-size bulbs in 1 square meter)
2. It will save you money (we would spend about $100-$150/year, just on garlic!)
3.Add flavor to your kitchen that you could never buy (most varieties simply aren’t sold in supermarkets).
4. And for health reasons. Not only is garlic good for you – it can improve heart health in lots of ways, it can help get rid of acne, …But if you buy garlic from the supermarket, you might want to know that a lot of garlic comes from China. Agricultural practices vary widely in China. The garlic you buy may be totally clean, fabulous garlic. But it may also have been grown with heavy chemicals, it may have been fertilized with human feces, and it may have been bleached, before being sold in America. The thing is, you just really don’t know.
There are two basic types of garlic – hard-neck and soft-neck.
Hard-neck varieties of garlic are hardier and can handle the harsher winters of northern climates. They also send up a flower stalk in the spring, known as the scape. Some garlic growers plant hard-neck garlic purely for this scape, which can be cut and used in stir-fries, soups, etc.
One particular type of hard-neck garlic, known as rocambole or serpent garlic, sends up a scape that, instead of producing flowers at the top produces bulbils. These bulbils can be harvested and used to grow more garlic bulbs, though it will take two years for them to grow full-size bulbs.
Hard-neck garlic bulbs and cloves are usually larger than soft-neck varieties, but they do not store as well as soft-neck garlic, nor can you braid hard-neck varieties into the familiar plaits that are so convenient for hanging and storing garlic. Instead, store them in a mesh bag or a a seagrass basket where they’ll still get plenty of air circulation.
(I absolutely LOVE this seagrass basket. Isn’t it beautiful? Imagine it full of homegrown, home cured garlic and onions! (It’s on my wish list for Christmas this year.)
You’ll probably never find hard-neck garlic in supermarket stores. We never have. Nor have we ever seen it being sold at a farmer’s market yet. (I’m sure there are farmer’s markets out there that have some… there must be!)
But if you want it, the best way to get it is to grow it.
Some gardeners swear that hard-neck garlic has superior flavor… and I happen to be one of those. ☺
But, of course, there are several varieties of both kinds of garlics, so you might prefer soft-neck garlic. Find a variety or two you love – for its strong or mild flavor, for its crispness or creaminess, for its versatility or recipe specialty – and you’ll be hooked on growing your own garlic.
Soft-neck garlic does not send up a scape, as hard-neck varieties do. It is also less-hardy and not suitable for far northern latitudes. It produces smaller cloves, but it will grow in southern areas where hard-neck garlic won’t do as well.
Soft-neck garlic matures more quickly and stores better than hard-neck garlic, and it can be braided into beautiful plaits for hanging.
Some people really love and prefer the flavor of soft-neck garlic.
Whether you are growing soft-neck or hard-neck garlic, planting and cultivating is almost exactly the same.
For the largest bulbs, you’ll want to plant your garlic in the autumn – sometime between September and November, depending on where you live. This allows the garlic plant to grow and produce several leaves before the bulb begins to form during the lengthening days of spring. The larger and more numerous leaves will be better able to feed the growing bulb, allowing it to reach full size.
Garlic is a member of the allium family, and, like the rest of its family members, garlic prefers light, rich, well-drained soil. Preparing your soil well is key to growing good garlic. Add as much well-composted manure or compost to the soil as you can. This will help with drainage, especially during wet winters, and provide lots of nutrients for your garlic to grow.
I would recommend purchasing specific varieties of garlic from a seed company or specialty garlic supplier. Don’t use garlic from the grocery store. (They’re often sprayed with an anti-sprouting chemical anyway. Ugghh.)
Gently break apart your garlic cloves. Do not remove the paper wrapper, and don’t bruise the cloves (this can give rot an easy entry). Plant the large garlic cloves and save the smaller ones for cooking (you’ll get a preview of the flavors and textures of the garlics you’re growing).
Choose a spot in full sun. Dig a small hole for each garlic, or sow them in rows. Space them 6 inches apart in rows 12 inches apart. (You can grow a lot of garlic in a small space!) Plant them so the top is pointed upward, and sits about 1 inch below the soil. Firm the soil in place so that the garlic will be able to anchor its roots well, so your garlic won’t be heaved out when the soil alternately thaws and freezes during winter.
If your winters are particularly wet, place the garlic on the top of the soil and hill up soil around them until the garlic cloves are covered by about 1 1 /2 to 2 inches of soil. Firm in.
Whether you plant directly in the ground or hill up earth around your garlic, you definitely need to mulch your garlic well! At least an inch or two of mulch.
The mulch will soak up excess moisture in wet winters, provide moisture in dry spells, help prevent the soil from alternately freezing and thawing during the winter (which will prevent heaving), and prevents the growth of weeds. Garlic does not like competition, so mulching well to prevent weeds is essential. Be sure to (carefully) remove any weeds that do come up.
Garlic needs consistent moisture, but doesn’t like wet soil. Be sure to water as necessary during dry spells.
Harvest & Storage
Garlic planted in the fall may be ready to harvest as early as June or July, but more likely in August. Thankfully garlic lets us know when its ready for harvest. The leaves will begin to yellow and brown and flop over. When about half of the leaves have yellowed, your garlic is ready to harvest.
Harvesting too early will give you smaller bulbs, but you also don’t want to harvest too late or the garlic cloves will begin to split the outer wrapping, decreasing the shelf-life of your garlic.
Gently dig around your garlic with a hand trowel, taking care not to cut or bruise the bulbs. Do not wash the bulbs – just gently brush away excess dirt prior to curing.
Lay your garlic bulbs out on a tarp for 7-10 days in a warm, well-ventilated area to cure (or dry) them. Be sure they are never in sunlight during the curing process. If you intend to braid your soft-neck garlic into a plait, do this before you lay them out to cure, while the leaves are still soft enough to do so. They are fully cured when the outer cover is paper dry.
After they have full cured, you can brush off any dirt that still clings to the bulbs.
Garlic is a particularly good companion plant for roses and fruit trees. It repels aphids and Japanese beetles, and repels or confuses carrot root fly and root maggots.
Do not plant garlic near legumes (beans & peas) or asparagus.
Very Cold Winter Areas
If your winters are too harsh, even for hard-neck garlic, don’t despair. You can still grow your own, large bulbs of garlic by following these steps.
1. Plant garlic cloves in small pots. Keep moist.
2. Keep the pots moist but not wet. Place in an area that will get cold for several weeks, but not too frigid. (A garage is usually a good place.) Garlic needs a cold spell to grow properly.
3. The garlic cloves will begin to send up green shoots. Try to give them some sunlight whenever possible so they don’t exhaust the resources of the bulb before springtime.
4. In the spring, when the ground is workable and no longer frozen (and not freezing/thawing every 24 hours), the garlic can be planted. Given the head start they got through the winter, they should have enough time to produce full-size bulbs by fall.
Other Ways to Grow Garlic
What about urban areas? Despite what many people say, you CAN successfully grow garlic in pots or buckets.
You can even grow garlic greens on your window sill for a milder garlic flavor, to add to soups, salads, etc.